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Mayor and Oak Harbor City Council clash over personnel changes

A power struggle between Oak Harbor Mayor Scott Dudley and the City Council played out during the Tuesday night meeting as council members presented a series of motions aimed at reining in Dudley’s powers and simultaneously pushing him to quickly fill empty management positions.

The most significant action was meant to prevent Dudley from firing the current police chief or the public works director, though it’s unclear whether the clever maneuver will save the police chief’s job.

Several council members also stressed that the staffing changes, together with proposed revisions to the city’s personnel code and policy manual, has resulted in turmoil and plummeting morale among city employees.

“This is a tough time to be an employee of the city of Oak Harbor,” Councilman Joel Servatius said, quoting an unnamed staff member. “And that’s not a positive comment. It’s a very telling comment as to where we’re at and what the sentiment as to employee morale is right now in the city.”

The majority of the council members were obviously upset at Dudley’s surprise decision last week to fire City Attorney Bill Hawkins, who became the latest in a series of administrative casualties under the new  mayor. Dudley also sacked the city attorney before Hawkins, the fire chief and the city administrator. Administrators are “at-will” employees and serve at the pleasure of the mayor, which means he can fire them without cause.

Dudley also is replacing the interim city administrator, Development Services Director Steve Powers, with Senior Planner Larry Cort. And to complicate matters, the human resources director gave her notice last week.

Yet the focus Tuesday was on Rick Wallace, the city’s mild-mannered police chief. Dudley tried to force Wallace to retire at the end of June by giving him the choice of either retiring or being fired. Wallace agreed to retire, but then he and his attorney, Chris Skinner of Oak Harbor, looked into the issue and concluded that the chief is a “for cause” employee since he doesn’t have a contract.

Skinner sent a letter to the city on Wallace’s behalf, retracting the chief’s decision to retire and stating that he plans to continue working.

Skinner addressed the council during a public hearing for proposed changes to the personnel code, which included language that would have clearly defined the police chief and other department heads as at-will employees. Skinner said he was representing both Wallace and Public Works Director Cathy Rosen, who’s apparently also concerned about keeping her job under Dudley.

Skinner proposed that his clients’ employment status be “grandfathered in” so they remain for-cause employees.

In response, Councilman Rick Almberg did what Skinner proposed. He read a lengthy motion that designates both Wallace and Rosen in the personnel code as for-cause employees who cannot be terminated without cause. He said the motion would prevent litigation and protect valued employees.

“Both of them have been exemplary employees,” Almberg said. “I don’t think it’s fair to legislate them into a corner and treat them with disrespect by imposing provisions on them that would jeopardize their livelihoods.”

The motion passed, with Councilman Jim Campbell abstaining. That means Almberg’s motion will be added to the proposed personnel code, which is being brought back to the council for possible adoption at the June 18 meeting.

In an interview after the meeting, Dudley said he’s moving forward under the assumption that Wallace will retire this summer and that a new police chief will be named. The city advertised for the position and received 15 applications.

“I’m holding him to his retirement letter,” he said.

Dudley said he and the interim city attorney, Grant Weed of Snohomish County, will analyze the consequences of the motion if and when the new personnel code is adopted. He said he’s not sure if the motion is even legal.

In regard to Rosen, the mayor said he was surprised that she is worried about her job. He said he told her before taking office that he thinks she does a great job and he plans to keep her in the position. He said he has never spoken poorly of Rosen, in contrast to the city engineer; he said he made it clear during last year’s campaign that he feels the City Engineer Eric Johnston has made multiple mistakes and should go. Johnston has also hired attorney Skinner to help protect his job.

Also at Tuesday’s meeting, several council members expressed concern about the number of unfilled positions and how that may impact the upcoming budget process. Almberg proposed a motion to compel the mayor to fill the human resources director, the city administrator and the city attorney positions by Sept. 4 and to have the mayor and city staff come back at the next meeting with a schedule for filling the positions.

“We’re going to be going into the budget period. We don’t even know what the cost is going to be to fill their positions and we’re playing musical chairs in essence by moving these people around,” he said.

Likewise, Councilwoman Beth Munns complained that there’s been no communication at all about the process of hiring the new administrators.

Weed, the city’s interim attorney, warned that it’s probably not legal for the council to dictate a timeline for the mayor.

“The mayor is designated essentially as the chief personnel officer of the city,” he said.

Powers said the city staff has a ton of work to do before the next meeting and may not have time to create the requested schedule. Campbell argued that the council should trust that the staff members are doing all they can and not try to micromanage them.

In response, Almberg removed the deadline from his motion, but retained the part about the schedule. The motion passed.

In addition, Munns made a motion to prevent the mayor and department heads from making purchases over $10,000 without permission from the council.

In an interview, Dudley accused the council members of hypocrisy. He said they “didn’t bat an eye” at other expenses, such as the costs associated with Native American remains discovered on Pioneer Way, but they suddenly are worried about the costs of severance packages.

In addition, he said the council strongly criticized him when he worked quickly to find a new fire chief, but now they demand speed. The city attorney was fired just last week and the human resources director isn’t even gone, he pointed out.

“They were so concerned about the mayor pushing the timeline for confirmation of the fire chief, but now they want me to scramble to fill these seats tomorrow,” he said. “It’s hypocritical.”

 

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